Sour grapes of wrath

Frustrated dudes and the rancid worlds they create for themselves

Not going to lie. It’s been hard to muster up the energy to write anything of substance these past few weeks. Family, routine, stress, uncertainty, finances, time - it’s all blurring together in a singular mishmash of heightened responsibility that doesn’t inspire much creativity. The days themselves seem to bleed together and drift by horizonless. Relatable for everyone at this point, I’m sure.

Viewing films through this hazy prism, and the greater lens of a pandemic, certainly allows for unique details and motifs to reveal themselves. For me, it’s been those specifically relating to why humans resist change even when we are forced to embrace it. Two new releases readily available for your viewing pleasure - Bad Boys For Life and Underwater - lovingly and violently grapple with drastic, tectonic shifts in situational awareness and personal priority. Brisk, mean, and superbly paced, both studio genre films feature bona fide movie stars playing formidable, stubborn, resourceful experts in their respective fields (Will Smith’s suave Miami killing machine and Kristen Stewart’s stalwart engineer trapped miles beneath the ocean surface). When their worlds are quite literally turned upside down, either because of vengeance or natural phenomena, the characters must decide how they want to go out, and more importantly, how they will be remembered.

Stewart’s impressively old school, mostly reactive performance is only given time to breathe in between survivalist set pieces. But in those reflective moments, she chooses empathy and humility instead of resentment. This stands in stark contrast to many male film characters who lose control over their lives and relationships only to implode and self-destruct under the pressure. The process can happen quickly in a matter of scenes or over some time, throughout an entire film. It can be self-inflicted or brought upon by outside forces. But the foundation of their pain and pouting almost always revolves around feelings of entitlement. In their minds, happiness is not a privilege but a right, and something or someone is fucking that up. Many bad decisions are made denying both the inception of this predicament and the inevitable downfall it causes. But rarely does the selfish man take responsibility for the bed he’s made.

I’ve known of Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession by its crazy reputation for years, but next to nothing of the particulars until finally taking the plunge recently with so much quarantine time to burn. There are many ways to describe this film but none that really do its malleable insanity justice. Singular, confrontational, and wildly mad, this shape-shifting “thriller?” turns genres and emotions inside out to make a mockery of masculine pride and indulgence.

Unhappily married for many years, Anna (Isabelle Adjani) and Mark (Sam Neil) are finally reaching the end of their mutual misery. Having just returned home after working for shady government types on a prolonged classified project, Mark discovers that Anna has since started having an affair with Heinrich (Heinz Bennent), an older Eurotrash hunk who specializes in performing shirtless poetry. But this is no ordinary love triangle: what begins as painfully aggressive melodrama, with both sides of this couple going full nuclear on each other, quickly reveals a scaly, slithery, enigmatic narrative underbelly.

Through its audacious camera style and structure, Possession reveals the absurdity of Mark’s controlling presumptions with a chameleon-like ability to deceive and change tones. At the midway point, Żuławski nearly ditches logic altogether and envisions vivid nightmares and transformations directly connected to Cold War tensions and paranoia all fueling extreme emotional trauma. This is a massive, throwdown divorce story unlike any other, one that considers not just the pain and anguish brought upon by romantic failure, but the strange, unnatural excitement felt while embracing the hurt caused by permanent separation. It’s a man’s world, so Anna must embrace an altogether different monster to break free.

The first act of Ronald Bronstein’s Frownland is so excruciatingly awkward, so deeply uncomfortable and disorienting that I wouldn’t begrudge anyone if they decided to turn the film off. I thought of doing just that as the lead character Keith (Dore Mann) tries haplessly to reconcile with his unhappy girlfriend inside the cramped confines of an overly lit NYC studio apartment. Nearly 10 minutes elapse without dialogue as the distraught young woman rubs her face in a down pillow (she turns out to be allergic) while Keith stutters and stops, stutters and stops in what becomes modern cinema’s greatest sonnet of unintelligible syllables.

Keith’s foibles only get more pronounced from there as he tries to navigate a modern world where nearly everyone is a verbal predator eager to feast on his anxiety and unsociable demeanor. Nothing really changes in his life as Frownland progresses, but the audience gains a better understanding of why he sees society as misanthropic, and why in turn society views him as a troll in baggy jeans.

Released in 2007 at the height of Mumblecore, a subgenre of American indie cinema that heavily relied on handheld cinematography, rambling non-sequiturs, frustrated Millenials, and deeply indulgent dialogue, Frownland immediately unchains itself from those conventions with a menacing, calculating view of human nature. Keith is just one of many characters who spend every waking hour negotiating their own survival with people who are stronger and more vindicative. Bronstein’s film taps into the very American male need to dominate and ridicule those deemed weaker or more vulnerable. And Mann's twitching, piercing performance is the equal of Buster Keaton or Peter Sellers, and sometimes infinitely more unnerving. Knowing that Bronstein went on to collaborate with Josh and Benny Safdie as a co-writer and editor, it’s clear this frenzied, stressful portrait of antipathy has been quite an influence on the Uncut Gem bros.

If Possession and Frownland revolve around men who are delusional about their lives crumbling, John Frankenheimer’s Seconds presents a modernist conspiracy narrative that does just the opposite. The film’s protagonist, an upper-middle-class banker named Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph), seemingly has it all. Devoted wife. Married daughter. Wealth. Professional respect. But when a clandestine company offers him the chance to live under an entirely new identity, he becomes enamored with the possibility of starting fresh.

From that devil’s agreement, Rock Hudson’s studly face and body are sculpted into reality by a plastic surgeon’s scalpel. Arthur is now Antiochus Wilson, a “new” man. But like so many entitled men, no amount of convenience or access or women or power will ever fill the void in their soul. Enlightenment and self-realization are only figments of the imagination.

While this might not be my favorite Frankenheimer film from this era, it does feature incredible camera work by the great cinematographer James Wong Howe, not to mention one of the most cynical gut punches of an ending. It goes to show that even when presented with exactly what they want, the broken and delusional man can’t see the forest for the trees. Because in the end, it was never about controlling the world but controlling how the world sees them. I highly recommend seeking all three of these films out.

Until next time,

GHJ